Earlier in 1964, in September, I began experiencing stomach pains, especially when I hadn’t eaten for a few hours or consumed coffee, alcohol or certain foods. It got to the point where I started keeping a tin of crackers in my room at the Dai Nam so that when I awoke at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. with an ice pick in my gut, I could munch a few crackers to ease the pain.
Early on I suspected an ulcer but tried denial, hope and Tums for a few weeks before yielding to the obvious and going to sick call. A duodenal ulcer was diagnosed and I was put to bed in the little Navy hospital in Saigon. I was only there a couple days because the policy was to send patients needing more than a few days care to Clark AFB Hospital in the Philippines by medical evacuation (MedEvac) plane. This kept the beds in Saigon available for emergency cases – gunshot, shrapnel or other combat-related wounds. Even though Americans were present in-country as advisers or trainers, or to manage the military aid program, they nonetheless provided a steady trickle of combat wounds and deaths. When the VC ambushed an ARVN patrol or attacked an outpost or a Vietnamese Navy gunboat, they were well pleased to kill any Americans present.
I felt a little foolish getting on the MedEvac plane with men who had serious wounds, some even critical, with IVs in their arms. I was also worried that hospitalization might last longer than 30 days. If that happened, two bad things could result. Navy policy was to permanently replace any individual away from his or her duty station more than 30 days for medical reasons. That could mean I would lose the job I enjoyed at AFRS and be reassigned instead to a public information office at Naval Support Activity or MACV (Military Assistance Command Viet Nam), a multi-service headquarters. Even worse, I could be reassigned out-of-country, in the Philippines or Guam, for instance. In that case, since I had only served a little over half of my one-year tour of duty, I could later be sent back to Viet Nam to start a new one-year tour from square one. I began lobbying for an early return to duty within my first few days at Clark, somewhat to the annoyance of my doctor.
I was glad to be put into a room with three other guys who were injured without being involved in combat. Two were Air Force men injured in an auto accident on the base at Clark and the third was a gray-haired Army sergeant who had caught a piece of shrapnel in his heel during a Viet Cong harassing attack on Tan Son Nhut airfield outside Saigon. Such attacks were not uncommon. The Sergeant was walking back to his barracks from the evening movie when the VC lobbed a few rockets into the base. He dove for cover under a truck but his feet were exposed. Against all odds, a piece of shrapnel found his heel. It was the fourth time he had been wounded during his 20+ years of service.
When the doctor on our ward made his rounds the next morning, the Sergeant opened his pajama top for the doctor’s stethoscope and the doctor noticed a few small scars running diagonally from his hip to his shoulder. The doctor asked how he got the scars. “German machine pistol, Battle of the Bulge,” was the answer. The doctor was amazed he’d survived such grievious wounds. He asked if he’d had any other wounds and the Sergeant showed him another scar from World War II and one from Korea.
When the doctor got to me I was hoping he wouldn’t say out loud what my chart showed as my complaint. No such luck. I avoided looking at the Sergeant while the doctor talked to me. I was a little bit intimidated.
That first day I underwent an “upper GI” (gastrointestinal) exam. It involved standing behind a fluoroscope screen and taking big gulps of a barium milkshake. Swallowing barium is like drinking mush made out of chalk. (I would discover years later something worse than an upper GI – a lower GI – think about it.)
That afternoon I was put on an ulcer diet of bland foods, including lots of dairy products. Between meals I was provided Dixie cups of ice cream and unsalted soda crackers. These were brought to me by the nurse when she distributed meds to my roommates. To their credit, they didn’t make any snide remarks, but it was a little humiliating just the same. They had good, honest injuries involving broken bones and torn flesh. I had a tummy ache.
As I began pestering the doctor about being released for return to duty, he warned me that an untreated ulcer could perforate, possibly resulting in death. He cautioned me not to think it wasn’t a serious condition that required proper treatment. He said they’d do another upper GI in due course and see whether the ulcer was healing. My situation reminded me of the time I was hospitalized with a lot of boils in boot camp. I had been worried about being “set back” to a different recruit company a couple weeks behind mine. Extending one’s time in boot camp was not a happy prospect.
After about ten days I was not experiencing any pain and since I didn’t need to be kept in bed I was able to go “on liberty” around the base, visit the non-commisioned officers’ club, and so on. Clark AFB covered a huge area and on one part of the base was a Negrito village. The Negritos were among the original inhabitants who were in the Philippines long before the Malayan people who are the majority in the islands today. The Negritos name, bestowed by the Spanish colonial rulers a couple centuries earlier, means “little black people.” They are similar in size to the African pygmies of the Ituri Forest.
Perhaps because of their diminutive stature, the Negritos were mostly overlooked by the Americans when Spain ceded the Philippines to the U. S. after the Spanish-American war. When Clark Army Air Field was established before World War II, the Negritos were given what amounted to a reservation on a remote part of the base. The Negrito chief at some point approached the base commander and proposed that the Negrito men be employed to provide perimeter security around the base in exchange for payment and trade goods. The officer politely declined the offer, explaining that his military police were well trained and could provide perimeter security without help.
A few days later, so the story goes, the Negrito chief returned and emptied a pouch onto the base commander’s desk. There were a few dozen small wedges of leather. The puzzled officer asked what they were. The chief told him to have his MPs who were on perimeter security the night before check the heels of their boots. It was then discovered that many of them had small notches cut out of their boot heels. The Negritos were hired. I was told this story by people at Clark who believed it was true. I hope it was.
The Negrito village had become a popular tourist site for visitors to Clark and I made the trip out to it. The village looked like an uncontaminated stone age settlement but I suspected that was just window dressing for the tourists. The villagers had access to scrap metal and other recyclables generated by base operations and turned them into objects for sale to tourists. I bought a machete and a “disembowler,” with a corkscrew blade about 18 inches long, with numerous saw teeth and barbs filed into both edges. The function of the weapon was to be thrust into an enemy’s belly and then yanked out, bringing entrails hooked on the barbs and saw teeth. The ones sold to tourists were too flimsy to be used but I was told they were copies of the real thing. Perhaps that helps explain how the Negritos survived centuries of subjugation by Filipinos and the Spanish.
Finally, the day came when I took another upper GI and was marked fit for duty, with a list of instructions on how to avoid a relapse. I reported in at the Naval Support Activity personnel office in Saigon on December 12, 25 days after being hospitalized in Saigon. I was delighted to walk into the radio station that afternoon, safe by five days. And in plenty of time to be present for the Christmas Eve bomb blast.